Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Wednesday, 4 February 2015


Street Games

Don’t look at them.
Don’t look at their faces.
Because you’ll see there
What you’re really like.

Don’t feel sorry for them:
They don’t deserve it.
Don’t touch them:
Just leave them alone.

Germs in a body
Huddled in a doorway:
Germs are bodies
Hiding in the backstreets.

Cringing in depressing isolation:
An old man bent double over
        dustbin lids…
For what are we searching here
        in the ashes?

Shadows of men playing a game
        called reality.

Glasgow, just outside Central Station, 18 June 1976



Technically it wasn’t just outside Central Station. It was on Mitchell Street which runs parallel to Gordon Street which runs down the side of the station. In my head it was in a side street—more of an alley than anything else—and there are plenty of those in the centre of Glasgow in the middle of blocks allowing access to delivery vehicles and bin men. But, no, Mitchell Street turns out to be a proper street with traffic lights and everything.

I left school in June 1976 when I was sixteen. So, nearly forty years ago. This was my first time in Glasgow alone. I was working in an architect’s office at the time. It was my ideal job and the only thing I’d wanted to do from the day I discovered techie drawing. As it happens despite being top of the year—I got 98% in my final exam—I was no good in a work setting but that’s another story. I’d been told to meet one of the architects in Glasgow and, typical me, I was there an hour early. So I went for a wander. And on Mitchell Street I encountered my first down and out.

There’s some cool street art there now but in the early hours of 18th June 1976 it was cold and miserable. And there he was. Asleep or passed out sprawled on the pavement or maybe in a doorway—the specifics are a bit vague now—but I had never seen anything like him in my life. I didn’t know what to do. I thought I ought to do something, buy him a pie or something—seriously, that was my first thought—but I was also scared. And I let my fear get the better of me and I walked away. My dad said I did the right thing and I probably did but for years I used to take a particular interest in the tramps around Central Station especially one with wild ginger hair who I imagined could be me before I hit thirty.

‘Street Games’ first appeared in Street Games and Other Poems.



Gwil W said...

Timeless. Schottentor Tram Station, Volksoper U-Bahn Station, Schwedenplatz etc. 2015

Jim Murdoch said...

You’re right, Gwilliam. I was in Glasgow yesterday, on Sauchiehall Street so nowhere near the station, and I must’ve seen a dozen people begging in one form or another but the one that stood out for me was a guy who was wearing the same coat as I was. Apart from having a bit more hair on his head and a tidier beard he could’ve been me. He was just standing there in the middle of the pedestrian precinct with his woolly hat on the paving. He wasn’t doing anything. He wasn’t playing the mouth organ or a penny whistle or even singing us a wee song. He wasn’t carrying a sign telling us his sob story. It was if something had compelled him to just stop in the middle of the street, take off his hat, drop it on the ground and just stand there. He made me uncomfortable. None of the others did. They were what we’ve become used to. But this guy was different, sadder.

Kass said...

Your reaction to this scene is poetically cringeworthy. I'm liking your early poem.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, I suppose it is cringeworthy, Kass. Not a word I would’ve chosen but then I was there and this poem brings all that emotion and confusion back to me. As a kid the only vagabonds I encountered were in poems. They were romantic figures. The tinkers (what my mother called gypsies) were a little different because they were a part of an organised group and didn’t actually beg; they offered service and goods for money. But this really was the first time I ever encountered a tramp. Now they’re commonplace and it says a lot about how society has changed in the last forty years. Even begging is not what it used to be. You hear stories of beggars living better lives than those holding down fulltime jobs. So we doubt. We doubt everything. It seems to be our default setting these days: doubt first. I suppose I was a fairly naïve sixteen-year-old. I liked to think I was a cynic (and I was working on it) but the reality was I’d lived a protected life and had no real experience of the real world. Seeing a guy lying in the street affected me. I didn’t think he’d done this to himself and he didn’t deserve my pity. Pity poured out of me. I’m not sure he would’ve appreciated it and he would’ve probably taken advantage of my naïveté. So I did right leaving him be. But it didn’t feel like the right thing.

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